The first four floors had apparently just been practice. Floor 5 did its best to be an unmappable bastard of a maze with multiple ensconced 2×2 regions of one-way walls and teleporters.
|There are five rooms that look like this. Good luck figuring out which one you're in or where the black doors go.
Combat was, once again, too dangerous for my party - ghosts lurked the maze, who are difficult to hit, take little damage when you succeed, and hit for 10-20 damage in retaliation, and my characters had as little as 24 max HP. Slightly less dangerous but still responsible for some deaths were the demons, who have lots of HP, enough to nearly ensure combat lasts at least two rounds, and pretty hard-hitting attacks. I'd have to farm floor 4 awhile longer, whose XP rewards were no longer significant to my level 6 party, but the gold yields remained fruitful - such an encounter could give $150-$300 per character, and I'd need $2,560 to buy everyone the best weapon in the store, battle axes, and the same amount to buy the second-best armor, full plate.
The mysterious "drugs" sold in the hospital, I discovered, are simple healing items, restoring 5-10 HP per dose by my estimate. Each costs $55, and each player can hold 5 of them, making it a trivial expense to fully restock on a return to town at this phase. The store also sells bottles, which I assume are required in order to purchase drugs. Any player can heal any other player with a drug, so for all intents and purposes, your party has a capacity of 25.
After one session farming floor 4, I acquired enough gold to buy battle axes and full plate for everyone. The XP incidentally earned wasn't even half of what I needed to reach level 7. All that was left to buy was the $10,240 tabard armor, which seemed doable with another session or two, but it seemed time to move on.
In exploring and trying to make sense of level 5, I realized a few things about how maps in The Black Onyx work.
- Teleporters aren't tiles in the dungeon (as in Wizardry), but rather exist on the edges of certain tiles (as in dnd).
- Every map is actually a 16×16 grid, with wraparound, and cleverly packed in a manner to make it seem larger than this boundary (a la Wizardry III).
- Features that span multiple floors - stairs, the well, and the black tower - consistently retain relative coordinates to each other.
- The cemetery and the area immediately below the well exist on the same 16×16 grid as the main first floor dungeon, which is why that floor appears to be so small.
|Consolidated level 1 map. Orange region is below the well, blue below the cemetery.|
Speaking of the well, it goes down all the way to level 5, where a fixed encounter against a Kraken is almost certain to kill at least one character, even with the heavy loadout I was packing at this stage.
|So much for a convenient shortcut.|
At least my battle axes were enough to deal with the ghosts and demons, typically killing them in a round or two, minimizing their chances to hurt me in return. The drugs came in handy for healing the unavoidable damage. I did, one time, encounter a "hider" monster, who one-shotted Helen, but apart from that rare encounter (and the Kraken), the combat was doable, and at this stage, perhaps more valuable for the experience than the money.
In retrospect, it probably would have been better to keep farming floor 4, as here I kept running through my drug supplies and being forced to make the long trip back to the surface, but after three sessions, using the quit/save/load function to reset the treasure encounters, I simultaneously reached level 7 and earned enough money to buy the best armor.
This was good enough to take on the Kraken.
I decided I'd grind one more level before descending to floor 6, by no means a quick feat. Each trip to floor 5 was good for about one bar's worth of experience before the drugs ran out, and you need nine for a level up, but at least I didn't need to think about collecting money any longer. Occasionally, fights would drop magic versions of weapons and armor, which I didn't bother taking as I had no way of knowing their effectiveness compared to what I already had, or indeed if it even differed from the equivalent stuff available for purchase at all.
I did re-encounter the hider, and on its defeat, received its invisibility cloak, which made its recipient nearly unhittable. That was nice. Wish I found more.
|Badly battered battalion but Betty's better buffed.|
After hours of mindless grinding, I reached level 8 and returned to town to heal, stock up on drugs, and check our new stats. At the examinations, the size of the bar representing level suggested that level 9 was the highest you could go, but grinding level 8 any more would have been pointless; most combats there weren't even yielding one pixel worth of XP, and a level up needs approximately 180 of them. Even the kraken "boss" encounter was only good for a single pixel on the bar. It was time to take on the next floor.
|Everyone had full health at the start of this combat.|
If you thought combat on level 5 was bad, it's so much worse on 6. Those damage-sponge demons that hit for at least two drugs-worth of HP? Enjoy fighting four of them at once. And those aren't even the worst things found down here. An average encounter here did enough damage to my party that I'd need to consume five drugs for a mostly full heal, and you can't carry more than 25.
I don't know if I was underlevelled, understatted, or had just been shooting myself in the foot by never taking magic armor drops (other than that ultra rare invisibility cloak), but none speak of great game design here. Grinding out one last level would have been impractical - too slow on floor 5, too deadly on floor 6 (and painfully slow still). Stat gains per level are random and variable, and you have zero control over it, unlike Wizardry where your initial stat distribution is the most important part of character development and HP/stat gains trend on the generous side. Hellen had barely half as much HP as William, Francois's strength and dexterity lagged behind the party's highest by over ten points each, and the prospect of grinding another five characters to level eight so I could pick a team of the best certainly did not appeal!
As for magical items, as I mentioned, there's no clear indication of relative effectiveness. Wizardry showed you your AC, but The Black Onyx doesn't. I can presume from the price that a tabard protects better than full plate, but where does magical half plate fit in? Furthermore, the paper doll view is the only indication of what your party has equipped - the game offers no character sheets whatsoever - and "magic" armor and weapons look no different from their standard counterparts, so I hypothesized that there is no difference.
At the very least, mapping floor 6 was straightforward, but the process involved suicide runs. The level is divided into six regions, each with differently-colored walls, and each region directly connects to four others. A red region holds two teleporters, the only on this floor, and is the only region from which all five others may be reached directly, though the walls will remain red until you walk to a different region. A seventh black region, which I can only presume is the base of the black tower, connects to all six colored regions, but remains impassable.
With no clear exit, I had to look at CRPG Addict's post to find out what to do. This is a color puzzle, and the solution is maddeningly obscure even without regard to my own colorblindness. The key is the title screen.
|Leave this looping long enough and you get an animated overture.|
That black death star-like object is the solution, cycling through black, blue, purple, yellow, white, red, and green. MS Paint's color picker tool is very useful for discerning this when you have eyes that can't. That said, how did users stuck with monochrome monitors cope? The game has a monochrome option, but I can't tell if it changes anything
I passed through the maze regions in the order, starting with blue. I soon lost Hellen to the rough monsters, but gained a second invisibility cloak (obviously I did not save). By the time I reached red, everyone but Betty and William was gone. The game emitted a chirp once I entered the green region, and I was able to enter the black zone - a somewhat confusing but very small maze of dark walls, with an ascending staircase near the middle.